Culture

Hoax Politics

A protestor writes an anti-Starbucks message on a coffee cup while demonstrating inside a Center City Starbucks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania U.S., April 16, 2018. (Mark Makela/Reuters)
The mantle of victimhood has many uses.

A bad cop in Herington, Kan., has become an ex-cop after perpetrating a hoax in which he alleged that a McDonald’s employee wrote the words “f***ing pig” on a cup of coffee before giving it to the officer. The incident was, like so many of these, made up.

It was of course impossible for the man in question (whose name has been withheld by the department, which does not expect to charge him with a crime) to continue as a police officer — a man who will falsify evidence in a scandal might be expected to falsify evidence in a crime, and he lied to his superiors when asked about the incident. The hoax follows a similar genuine episode at a Starbucks, which resulted in the firing of a server.

I hope somebody on MSNBC will ask the Reverend Al Sharpton about that. Sharpton proved himself one of the great hoax artists in American public life during the Tawana Brawley affair, in which Sharpton did his best to whip up anti-police hysteria over a rape that never happened. Unfortunately, the Reverend Sharpton, whose broadsides against Jewish “bloodsuckers” at a funeral bedecked with a banner reading “Hitler Did Not Do the Job” preceded the Crown Heights riots, was busy lecturing New Yorkers on anti-Semitism.

Politicized rape accusations have become disturbingly common: Lena Dunham and her fiction about that College Republican at Oberlin, Rolling Stone’s rape fiction treating a UVA fraternity as a stand-in for “patriarchy” at large, the Duke lacrosse case, etc.

The politically motivated rape hoax is a particularly heinous subgenre of outrage-theater hoax. Much more common is the phony hate crime: Jussie Smollett encountering a couple of Trump-loving gay-hating white supremacists who just happened to be big enough Empire fans that they recognized him on the streets of Chicago in the middle of the night and who just happened to have a noose and a gallon of bleach handy, who turned out to be a couple of Nigerians who worked with the actor; the anti-gay and “Heil Trump!” graffiti painted at an Indiana church by the church’s organist, a gay Democrat fixated on Trump; former NFL player Edawn Coughman painting racist slurs, swastikas, and MAGA on a business he owned; dozens and dozens of episodes at universities, etc. A few months ago, the media were atwitter and tut-tutting as hard as they could over a racist attack on a black girl at a school where the vice president’s wife teaches, with figures such as U.S. representative Rashida Tlaib doing their best to politicize the episode — which, as it turns out, never happened.

Wilfred Reilly, a professor of political science at Kentucky State, found that fewer than a third of the hate crimes he studied were legitimate.

What, exactly, is at work here?

One factor is that conservatives who warned about the “cult of victimhood” in the Eighties and Nineties were right. The mantle of victimhood has many uses: There are careers to be made out of professional victimhood, from cat’s-paw op-ed columnists to associate deans of this and that and whole vast swathes of human-resources departments. Underperforming employees worried about their prospects of advancement or continuing employment wrap themselves in protective victimhood. Grifters such as Elizabeth Warren cynically exploit the genuine suffering of grievously wronged people to advance their own careers and interests, which is how the milky complexioned lady from Oklahoma became a “woman of color” at Harvard Law.

But the more important factor here is the mutant tribalism that infects our political discourse in the age of social media, which, properly understood, is not discourse at all but antidiscourse, communication designed not to enable the exchange of ideas and views but to prevent genuine meaningful exchange. It is a status game, one in which political speech serves not to communicate but simply to raise or lower the relative status of rival social groups. This is why Lena Dunham, who thinks of herself as a kind of feminist, invented a story about being raped by a College Republican, not by a College Socialist, and why other rape hoaxes have targeted fraternities and sports teams rather than environmental groups or the campus chess club. The strategy at work is one of smear by association.

Those of us who are involved in public issues and controversies have in the age of social media grown used to this sort of thing. In my own case, I’ve seen tweets alleging to be from me that were obviously made up out of whole cloth; NARAL made an absurd claim that I had gone on Morning Joe and offered an unhinged tirade about lynching people (since repeated elsewhere), which was a pure fabrication; Matt Bruenig, sometime Atlantic contributor, manufactured a quotation in which I defended the racist antics of Donald Sterling, of whom I had never heard and about whom I had never written one word. These were not “selectively edited” or “taken out of context”—they were made up.

These lies and fabrications are sometimes defended on the grounds that they illustrate a “larger truth,” one that is somehow not illustrated by the facts. The real argument for them is that people are so sure that the people they hate deserve to be hated that they believe they have moral license to lie about them.

The more subtle form of the same dynamic is what really sustains media bias. Ramesh Ponnuru points to a textbook example of this in the case of Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson’s attack on Bill Barr in the New York Times, which asserts that the attorney general is beholden to some daft “Christian nationalist” philosophy to which he refers to in “code” when he speaks of “religious liberty.” They offer no evidence for this nonsense, because there isn’t any. The authors, Ponnuru writes, “offer no evidence that Barr secretly shares their own view of what religious liberty is and isn’t and is merely cynically using the phrase to conceal his drive for privilege. Nor, of course, do they mount any kind of argument that the views Barr professes to believe about religious liberty are actually wrong. Their assertions will have to suffice.” Like the rape epidemic on college campuses that isn’t happening and all those phony hate crimes, the risible belief that some sort of Christian Taliban is waiting in the wings of American public life, ready to sweep in and establish some sort of Margaret Atwood dystopia, requires no evidence to serve its function, which is to lower the esteem of the Left’s political enemies and to defame them.

Americans are perfectly able to distinguish between hoaxes and crimes, between authentic political disagreement and intellectually dishonest misrepresentation. The problem is that too many of them are so besotted with tribalism and high on rage that they do not care. Such passions always have characterized the demos, which is what makes democracy so vulnerable to demagoguery. But a combination of factors — including, but not limited to, the decline of political parties and changes in the business models of media companies — have left the institutions that once countered the worst of these tendencies either unable to do so, as in the case of the institutional leadership of the two major political parties, or unwilling to do so, as in the case of the New York Times et al.

A 19th-century politician once complained that we live under a “government of newspapers,” but we are well on our way to something much worse: a government of Twitter, which is, inevitably, a government of lies.

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